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A small town serves as a sanctuary for a group of people with secrets to hide in supernatural mystery Midnight, Texas. DQ speaks to showrunner Monica Owusu-Breen about adapting Charlaine Harris’s novels and the show’s political parallels.

When the first novel in the Midnight, Texas series was published in May 2014, Donald Trump was still a year away from entering the race to succeed Barack Obama as US president.

Charlaine Harris’s Midnight Crossroad introduced the inhabitants of a derelict town with little to distinguish itself besides its quaint and quiet atmosphere. For someone looking for a place to hide, Midnight is the perfect location.

Monica Owusu-Breen

The paranormal saga sets Midnight up as a town where outsiders can find sanctuary from those who would otherwise seek to persecute them, and a sense of community among others with secrets of their own.

Three years on from that initial publication date, Harris has followed up her first book with sequels Day Shift and Night Shift, and Trump is now in the White House, making headlines for his anti-immigrant agenda and his attempts to withdraw funding from so-called sanctuary cities that limit their cooperation with national immigration laws, promoting themselves as safe havens for undocumented immigrants.

As such, the arrival of a television adaptation of Harris’s novels could not be more timely – and the show’s correlation with contemporary politics is not lost on series creator and showrunner Monica Owusu-Breen. At the heart of Midnight, Texas, she says, is “the idea of a town full of diverse people from all walks of life who find sanctuary in America and then fight the forces of evil together, respecting each other’s differences as strengths, not weaknesses. The whole thing has this metaphorical quality that was not intentional at the pilot stage but became super meaningful as the show progressed.”

US network NBC put Midnight, Texas into development in 2015 and ordered a pilot in January 2016. The show was picked up to series last May and the 10-part first season debuted last month. NBCUniversal International Distribution is selling the show worldwide, with Syfy in the UK among those to have picked up the supernatural drama.

Like the books, the series explores the eponymous remote town that is home to a vampire, a witch, an angel and an assassin – a haven for those who are different and have to hide from the outside world. However, the arrival of a powerful psychic and a murder from within threaten their tight-knit community.

Despite the long-running success of another series based on Harris’s novels – HBO’s True Blood – Midnight, Texas opened in the US to soft ratings of 3.6 million viewers. Perhaps that’s not surprising for a genre series far removed from the legal and medical procedurals that draw the biggest crowds to network television, particularly during the ratings-light summer season.

Francois Arnaud leads the cast as psychic Manfred, a new arrival to Midnight

Owusu-Breen jokes that she checked with NBC executives to make sure they knew what they were getting when they ordered this “crazy” show. “When I read the books, I had a personal connection to it and there was also this crazy, madcap world of surprising beings,” she says. “Charlaine has this boundless imagination and there was a joy in that for me. There definitely were moments when I would look at look my NBC executive and say, ‘You guys want this? You’re sure, right?’ But it was so fun, weird and hopeful.”

In any other series, the characters that populate Midnight would most likely be the villains of the piece, but that’s part of the fun – particularly when recent arrival Manfred (played by François Arnaud), the aforementioned psychic, begins to discover who his new neighbours are.

“They all felt like they could have their own show,” Owusu-Breen says of Midnight’s inhabitants. “What you realise is these people come from really ugly pasts. Some of them have histories that are profoundly painful, so for them to come to Midnight and find sanctuary is really quite beautiful. While they start off as these fun, crazy characters, what got them to Midnight and those reveals really adds heart to them.”

As network television sticks to largely episodic fare amid the wave of serialised drama on cable and streaming platforms, Owusu-Breen remarks that with Midnight, Texas, she’s having her cake and eating it too. “I was on [Fox sci-fi drama] Fringe and our showrunner coined the phrase ‘Mythalone’ – a series of standalone episodes that add up to a whole story, like chapters in a book. Every episode is part of the greater myth of the story.

Fitz Henley plays a witch named Fiji

“In every episode, we’re following Manfred because he’s our hero. But we also explore one of the Midnighters in each episode, so by the end of the 10 instalments, you will understand who these people are and why they’re there. Then we have an overarching myth than will hopefully feel satisfying when you get to the end.”

Owusu-Breen was introduced to the world of Midnight, Texas when her agent sent her the books as a potential development project, and she says there were immediate parallels with her personal life. Her mother-in-law was a small-town psychic, while the showrunner would spend her summers as a child in a small Spanish town “in the middle of nowhere,” where everybody knew each other and their business.

“The novels have this oddly personal resonance for me, and as I continued to read the saga, I realised I loved these characters,” she admits. “The community of Midnight is so peculiar that I could see the story going on endlessly. So it felt so fertile for a TV writer to approach. What I loved, too, is that Charlaine has a very specific voice – she doesn’t shy away from being funny, she doesn’t shy away from being romantic, so those two things also made the show feel special for me. It’s very rare you find material that rich.

“TV is a character’s medium; you’re asking people to tune in every week to see the same people, so if they’re not interesting… she creates these wildly interesting characters. They’re strange and they surprise you at every turn, but they’re fun and funny and obviously human despite being supernatural.”

Peter Mensah as vampire Lemuel

Season one blends the murder mystery of Harris’s first novel with the supernatural elements of book three, with Owusu-Breen describing the books as a roadmap for the series. A major element of the show was putting Manfred front and centre, serving ostensibly as the series lead before making way for the rest of the ensemble.

“In the book he was less of a driving force but we’re following him as the newcomer into the town,” the showrunner explains. “He’s the outsider and he’s the one who becomes an insider, so he has a different role than he plays in the books.”

Midnight, Texas is Owusu-Breen’s first solo showrunning job, having previously shared the role on ABC drama Brothers & Sisters. So when setting up her writers room, she was keen to bring with her a lesson she had learned on her previous job writing for ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – a “no assholes” policy.

“What that meant in practice is we had a delightful working environment where people were competitive and generous with ideas and could disagree without getting mean,” she reveals. “So I really took that to heart, because it didn’t hinder the creativity. It actually made it a more positive experience because you spend 10 hours in a room with the same people. So for me it was important to get writers who engage in the spirit of this material, which is funny and a little wacky, and also at its core it’s got sentiment and heart. You don’t want to get mired in cynicism, so it was a very fun writers room. The stories weren’t easy to break because they’re crazy, but I had a wonderful writing staff. We laid out Charlaine’s tentpoles [from the books], deciding what we wanted at the beginning, middle and end of the season, and then we just built stories around those.”

Assassin Olivia is portrayed by Arielle Kebbel

By the end of the first season, Midnight, Texas becomes a “repulsively large show” as a story that begins with a murder mystery ends with a ‘Hellmouth’ opening in the middle of the town.

“Thankfully we had directors, a line producer and creatives who just jumped at the challenge, so when we needed a lot of dead bodies, they’d come up with some ideas,” the showrunner says. “It was very funny how everyone rallied around everything. Some episodes are a little darker and emotional, while some are wildly fantastical and have a ton of CGI.  think we kept everyone on their toes but, at the end of the day, everyone had a really good time reaching for the stars.

“We close up the story of the first season and then open up a possible world for the second season. I try not to get my hopes up [about winning a second season renewal] but book two is there and I’ve got ideas I’m playing with. I’m just going to enjoy season one and see how the rest of the world likes it.”

Should political events in the US continue on their current trajectory, Midnight, Texas could prove to be a suitably diverting sanctuary for viewers to take cover from current affairs.

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The shape of things to come: what next for sci-fi and fantasy?

Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the television landscape and finds there are plenty of science-fiction and fantasy series in the works to keep genre fans happy.

At the same time as a tide of comic book and graphic novel TV adaptations have hit the screen, there has been a less trumpeted but increasingly visible trend in series based on ‘hard’ science fiction and ‘serious’ fantasy.

With the recent announcement of Bryan Cranston’s new Philip K Dick anthology series Electric Dreams (produced by Sony Pictures Television for Channel 4), there seems to be an unmistakable head of steam behind adaptations of ‘hard’ sci-fi – coming hot on the heels of Amazon’s critically lauded The Man in the High Castle (also based on a Philip K Dick novel) and Syfy’s miniseries version of Arthur C Clarke’s downbeat Childhood’s End.

This resurgence of more serious-minded sci-fi is demonstrated in the UK, with Channel 4 leading the way with the AMC coproduction Humans and the less viewed, but well-regarded, Utopia.

The alternate-history Axis victory premise of Amazon’s High Castle will be mirrored by BBC1’s upcoming SS-GB, which itself harks back to 1978’s BBC2 production An Englishman’s Castle, which starred Kenneth More as a TV soap writer in Nazi-occupied Britain.

Broadcasters and OTT providers have discovered a new vein to mine, as evidenced by a slew of shows being developed or in production, including HBO’s series version of Michael Crichton’s Westworld (pictured top), best known to older readers from the 1973 movie starring Yul Brynner, James Brolin and Richard Benjamin.

The alternate-history premise of The Man in the High Castle (pictured) is mirrored in SS-GB
The alternate-history premise of The Man in the High Castle (pictured) is mirrored in upcoming BBC series SS-GB

The successful movie was followed by the sequel Futureworld (1976) and short-lived 1980 series Beyond Westworld (CBS), both unfortunately following the law of diminishing returns.

Despite reported production problems, 2016’s Westworld’s stellar cast (including Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Thandie Newton) and strong proposition should guarantee high initial sampling when it debuts this autumn.

Westworld creator Jonathan Nolan (co-writer with his brother Christopher of The Prestige, Interstellar, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) is also apparently developing a series version of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy (also for HBO), which is surely a prospect that will have sci-fi fans salivating.

Back in 2009, Sony reportedly tried to crack the novels with director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, White House Down) attached, but when the project stalled, HBO stepped in to acquire the rights.

Along with JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert’s Dune, Foundation was regarded as ‘unfilmable’ due to its epic scope but, following Game of Thrones’ success, epic is something HBO can confidently handle.

Other sci-fi classics reportedly in development include Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin’s take on dystopian Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, produced by aficionado Bradley Cooper.

Both have been ordered by Syfy, which is also teaming with Battlestar Galactica writer/exec producer David Eick for the series version of Frederik Pohl’s 1977 Hugo and Nebula award-winning Gateway.

On the SVoD front, Hulu has given a straight-to-series order for a 10-part adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist story set in a grim US of the future, ruled by a Ted Cruz-style totalitarian Christian theocracy, starring Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake).

Syfy miniseries Childhood's End
Syfy miniseries Childhood’s End

A movie of the novel was released in 1990, boasting an all-star cast that included Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway and Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern, but the film suffered from script problems and was generally felt to be an interesting failure.

Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Noah) is said to be developing a TV series with HBO based on Atwood’s post-apocalyptic novel trilogy Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, set in a world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a pandemic and the survivors fight to find a reason to continue.

Back in 2011, there was talk of a remake of Ray Bradbury’s 1980 movie The Martian Chronicles (starring Rock Hudson), but this appears to have been abandoned. The revival of interest in the genre may see it resurrected, though.

US cable channel Spike has commissioned Kim Stanley Robinson’s hard sci-fi classic Red Mars for a 10-episode series debuting in January 2017. Dealing with the human colonisation of the Red Planet, the series features Vince Geradis (Game of Thrones) as exec producer.

And speaking of Mars, the daddy of all sci-fi stories – HG Wells’ War of the Worlds – is currently being developed by ITV-owned Mammoth Screen for an ostensibly authentic period version of the classic novel, scripted by Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, City of Vice, Doctor Who).

Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones, Dog Soldiers, The Descent) is on board to direct, while reports earlier this year of Poldark star Aidan Turner taking the lead role of the narrator have since been denied.

HG Wells features as the protagonist of ABC’s Time After Time (based on Nicholas Meyers’ 1979 movie), which involves the author travelling from Victorian England to the present day. Kevin Williamson (The Vampire Diaries, The Following, Dawson’s Creek) is showrunner for the series.

Sky's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories
Sky’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories

Although Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was successfully transferred to the cinema screen by Paul Verhoeven in 1997, it remains doubtful whether a TV version of his most famous work, the controversial 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land (once promoted as “the most famous sci-fi novel ever written”) will ever see the light of day.

In terms of the serious fantasy genre, the BBC’s upcoming version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy should benefit from having writer Jack Thorne (The Last Panthers, Skins, The Fades) guiding the show, which will hopefully avoid the pitfalls of 2007’s movie adaptation The Golden Compass and maintain more of an adult tone.

Scheduling and advertising will be important for the series, as the excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell suffered from misleading promotion, which gave the impression of a Harry Potter-style fantasy – and aired on the wrong channel, BBC1, when BBC2 would have been far more appropriate.

Fantasy legend Neil Gaiman has certainly been a busy lad, with no less than four TV adaptations of his writings in the works, as well as his mooted big-screen version of Gormenghast, which was last seen as a BBC2 series in 2000.

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper) was due to direct a movie version of Gaiman’s Sandman, but that recently hit the buffers.

First up is American Gods for Starz in the US, which has an impressive cast including Ian McShane, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Tucker and Crispin Glover.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Would BBC1’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell have fared better on BBC2?

Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Jamaica Inn, The Borgias) has since left the production to be replaced by Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black, The Wire) in the role of troubled Leprechaun Mad Sweeney, with Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies) as showrunner.

Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, which occupies the same fictional universe as American Gods, was optioned by BBC1 in the UK back in 2014, while his anthology Likely Stories has been commissioned by Sky Arts in the UK, featuring a cast that numbers Johnny Vegas (Benidorm, Ideal) and industry veteran Kenneth Cranham (Rome, War & Peace, Layer Cake), with a score by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker.

Directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard helmed and co-wrote the critically acclaimed 2,000 Days On Earth, a portrait of Aussie Renaissance Man Nick Cave.

Good Omens, Gaiman’s end-of-the-world collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett, is also being considered by the BBC for a miniseries, while Lucifer, the Fox show based on Gaiman’s character from Sandman, has recently been renewed for a second season.

Other fantasy projects with adult themes on the horizon include NBC’s Midnight, Texas (due to be transmitted this autumn), based on the novels by Charlaine Harris (True Blood), and the BBC’s The City and The City – Tony Grisoni (Red Riding, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Southcliffe) developing China Mieville’s cult novel about the cities Beszel and Ul Quoma, which occupy the same point in space and time.

And last, but by no means least, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, said to be the highest-selling serious fantasy novels since The Lord of the Rings, are rumoured to be under consideration by Sony for either AMC, Netflix or Amazon.

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